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Systems Biology: A Background


Traditionally, biomedical science has employed a reductionist approach to understanding human health. Conventional approaches have generally focused on a single disease-associated gene or protein, or well-characterized aberrant physiologies. These approaches have laid the solid foundations of cell biology and biochemistry, but have been largely unsuccessful at understanding the complex, multi-component biology underlying health and disease.

Systems biology rebuilds this reductionist paradigm into a large-scale, broad-view approach to health research. Systems biology involves integrated teams of researchers and clinicians that apply wide-ranging approaches to a coordinated health research question. These approaches integrate large data sets to gain a whole-picture understanding of the biological processes underlying health and disease. It employs cutting-edge technologies to survey large numbers of genes and proteins, uses advanced imaging tools to observe dynamic processes in real-time, and employs deep genomic understanding to compare and contrast across evolutionary time. It integrates these data with clinical information to generate gene-to-patient profiles/osb for analysis. The data from these tools are coordinated and queried with sophisticated quantitative tools from bioinformatics and computer science. The large-scale experimental work allows deep quantitative analysis which can discover the complex factors underlying health and disease.


Systems biology approaches produce tangible clinical benefits. For example, systems approaches led to the development of “multivariate” gene panels that assist in the determination of therapy for a variety of cancers. The ability to perform comprehensive assays and employ sophisticated data analysis has led to the identification of genes underlying a wide range of diseases including type II diabetes, autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and many others. McGill researchers are at the forefront of this research in part due to the cutting-edge technologies and resources available at facilities like the McGill Genome Centre.

Systems Biology approaches are also effective for the identification and development of therapeutics. McGill, for instance, has new facilities dedicated to High-Throughput and High-Content Screening, allowing researchers to screen in excess of 10,000 drug-like compounds in a single assay. The new McGill University Life Science Complex houses facilities dedicated to genomic microarrays, mass spectrometry and proteomics, histology, and bioinformatics. These facilities are increasingly used in integrative systems approaches to disease therapy and drug development.

Life Sciences Building

Despite the power of systems biology, the traditional approach to training scientists focuses on deep but narrow training in a single area of study. This approach produces well-trained scientists, but neglects to provide the broad education necessary to initiate and participate in broad multi-disciplinary teams. The Systems Biology Training Program is designed to provide students with the broad training necessary to perform multicomponent systems biology research programs. Students will be provided with both the hands-on experience and theoretical background to participate in systems biology teams, and upon graduation, to lead multidisciplinary teams that will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s health research.